review of Melanie at the Albany State Museum

Hippie Girl Forever

New York State Museum, June 25

Showmanship. Too many venues forget all about it; they collect your ticket and give you a chair to sit on. (Or not.) The folks at the New York State Museum, however, understand showmanship in a way that could almost be called cute. And I mean "cute" in the best sense.

Showmanship was on full display in the venue's first-ever concert last Friday, an evening with Melanie. The ushers, a friendly mix of seniors and students, wore colorful tie-dyed shirts. A psychedelic light show swirled on the ceiling of the museum's Clark Auditorium. Bongs were set up at the entrance of each row. All right, I'm lying about the bongs. But you get the idea-the museum created an atmosphere.

So did Melanie, by the way, who opened the evening with this rueful reflection, which brought down the house: "I can't believe I'm finally playing in a museum."

The singer, whose fame was more-or-less born at the original Woodstock, played two warm, friendly sets. Joking with the audience, making light of certain technical problems-more about those later-and relating anecdotes, Melanie was the hippest original hippie I've ever seen. (And believe me, I've seen quite a few, including a horrible Jefferson Airplane reunion show that scarred me for life. I can still hear Grace Slick singing about the plight of the panda bear.) Even better, she still has that husky, unclassifiably idiosyncratic vocal style that owes as much to pop music as folk.

Melanie mixed her hits and fan favorites with some pleasingly strong new tunes. The best of the latter included "And We Fall," a song about fickle teenage love (written for her daughter) that was both sympathetic and knowing, and "I Tried to Die Young," a witty (and self-explanatory) reflection on life.

Especially refreshing, however, was the way she presented her signature songs. "Brand New Key" ended the first set. Before she sang it, she gave the audience a little background info. Apparently, she originally wrote it as a slow, sexy Cajun-flavored blues. By the time her record-producer husband and other hands worked on it, however, "Brand New Key" became the "cute"-her word, not mine-international smash we know. "Creative" and "control," she lamented, are two words that just don't go together-even if, as she did then, have her own record label.

Even better was "What Have They Done to My Song, Ma." Melanie went into along routine, midsong, about an imagined movie version of her life. The dramatic climax of the movie, she explained, would be her onstage breakdown in the middle of this song-and she promptly illustrated this by wandering towards the first row in mock-horror, crying "Where am I?" Then she finished the song. She killed.

She played it straight on the anthemic "Lay Down," her bluesy cover of "Ruby Tuesday," and the moving "Rainbow Race." It was an entertaining and convincing performance; Melanie may be the last genuinely convincing hippie on the planet.

The concert was the first in a series being offered in conjunction with the exhibit Spirit of the Woodstock Generation: The Photographs of Elliott Landy; there were a number of opening night technical glitches, but nothing fatal. Upcoming concerts will feature such other Woodstock survivors as Arlo Guthrie, John Sebastian and Country Joe McDonald. They'll have to go a long way to top Melanie, however.

-Shawn Stone

upcoming shows!

Sat. July 24  Third Avenue Playhouse Sturgeon Bay, WI  
Sat. August 7  Happy Badger Performing Arts Palace Toledo, OH  
Sat. August 14  Lock 3 Live! Akron, OH  
Mon. August 23  Kentucky Theater (WoodSongs Taping) Lexington, KY